DNF of the Soul

A reader’s account of a DNF (did not finish), which felt like the right decision at the time.

By on December 19, 2023 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This Community Voices piece comes from Lydia Thomson of the U.K.]

There are so many ways you can slice a DNF (did not finish). “It just wasn’t your day.” “You did the right thing.” “Knowing when to stop is even harder than finishing.” “You’ll come back stronger.” “It’s still a great achievement.”

After I dropped from my first attempt at running 100 miles, at the 2023 Thames Path 100 Mile, these sorts of encouraging condolences came flooding in from my friends. I nodded weakly and said, “Thank you,” but at the time, none of these actually sat right. What did I want people to say?

During the hour I spent sitting in an aid station at mile 71, I desperately wanted someone to just level with me. To properly hear me out. I know what a low point looks like, and this wasn’t it. Kind hearts pressed sweets into my hands and invited me to walk with them. “Have some hot food before you decide. Some cheesy beans?” My eyes flooded with tears. I could only smile and shake my head.

My DNF was due to a certain amount of mental burnout. I was in the process of moving house and changing jobs at the time. About 45 miles into the race, the River Thames overwhelmed me and I had a panic attack. I imagined walking into the next aid station and dramatically proclaiming, “It’s not my body that’s injured, it’s my mind.”

Running 100 miles is a fierce and beautiful beast, and if you have anything going on mentally or physically, the race will find it and force you to stare long and hard at it. It’s not about how far you can run, it’s about how long you can stare.

Lydia Thomson - 2023 Thames Path 100 Mile

Lydia Thomson during the 2023 Thames Path 100 Mile. All photos courtesy of Lydia Thomson.

“This is where you’ll discover who you really are,” one kind runner said to me. “But what if I don’t want to know?” I replied, and the whole aid station laughed in sympathy. But it was the truest thing I could have said.

So here, now, at the sweat-soaked, dribbling end of the race, nursing a cup of tea, I had no tenacity left to rally. But neither did I come here for a death march. I was here to do my best and nothing less. A fizzing, bright-eyed woman told me that if I finished this one, I would never have to do another one. But that was the exact problem: I desperately wanted to do another one, and do it better.

As I sat there, watching the women who had been behind me flood into the aid station, I chose to learn from and be inspired by them. Next time, I too would be marching smartly toward the snacks, selecting exactly what I needed with nimble fingers and laughing with the volunteers.

The time it takes to run an ultramarathon is a really long time. It’s a long time to be unhappy. I’m not talking about the normal ebbs and flows, the crushing low points, the pain cave or bonking. I mean fundamentally having an atrocious day. I’d felt cripplingly low for 10-plus hours by this point. There was no way I was coming back from the dead. I had learned enough and there was nothing to be gained from me carrying on. It would only impede my chances of doing this again soon, and doing it how I wanted to.

If your main goal is to finish the race, then you should not drop just because you’re having a bad day. But if the wheels have not only come off, but they’ve rolled into the river and been swept out to sea, and you’ve still got 30 miles to go, you are allowed to throw in the soggy towel.

I want to normalize dropping from a race just because you truly, honestly don’t want to continue. I want a version of this sport where there is no glory in the death march — not if you don’t want it. People told me I’d be kicking myself for dropping. I never, ever did. You know why? Because this is what my friends also said:

“That was a great training run. You’ll get it next time.”

I gave myself some time before I booked the next attempt to make sure I’d go into it with the right body and mind. Three months later, I was on the start line for the 2023 North Downs Way 100 Mile, a hillier course that better suited my soul. I went out at a really conservative pace, and over the course of the day, I moved up the rankings. In the final 10 kilometers, kicking with everything I had left, I overtook a woman to put myself on the podium. I finished in third place and in just over 23 hours.

Lydia Thomson - 2023 Centurion Running North Downs Way 100 Mile - finish line

Lydia Thomson crossing the finish line at the 2023 North Downs Way 100 Mile, her first 100-mile finish.

Retribution feels pretty great. It feels particularly great because this was what I wanted to be capable of. All I wanted was to finish strong. But where does that leave the DNF?

One of the most striking things about Sally McRae’s recent films — “Every Step Forward” and “Racing Tahoe” — is the manner in which she relentlessly pushes on. Her feet are basically falling off and her stomach is entirely failing her for miles of the races, but still she strives. Likewise, listeners to Dylan Bowman’s account of his 2023 Hardrock 100 on the Freetrail podcast will be left utterly awestruck that he finished that race at all. It’s an astonishing adventure of the mind.

What is clear in both of these cases is that they had a strong “why” for finishing. They had a higher purpose. And indeed, if someone had said to me, “You need to finish this race for the sake of the representation of women in this sport,” I like to think that I would have rallied for this purpose.

Incidentally, during the 100 miler that I did finish, I was on my period, and had a low point when I realized it was 10 miles until the next toilet where I could discreetly change. And I had cramps. Just as I was knee deep in sulking, none other than Sophie Power — founder of the organization SheRACES — ran past me in the opposite direction, waving and smiling on a training run.

Suddenly my entirely manageable issue paled into insignificance. I was not alone with this problem in this world. I was experiencing something that she was actively working to make better. It was just the tinder I needed to quit my pity party and start fighting again.

That’s what resolve felt like. That’s what I couldn’t access the first time. Perhaps this is the marker of success or failure.

I think I could only do any of this because of the DNF. I am grateful for it. Settled in my new home in the weeks after the race, and back running the trails, I was grateful that I saved my legs the agony of that extra 30 miles. For me — and maybe for you — dropping was the greatest respect I could have shown to my mind, body, and goals that day.

I’m in this for the long haul. I am all in.

Call for Comments

  • Have you had any DNFs that you don’t regret or are grateful for?
  • Where do you draw the line in deciding it’s time to quit?
Guest Writer
Guest Writer is a contributor to iRunFar.com.